Road Test: 2008 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport
By Tony Swan of Car and Driver
A couple Mercedes guys stopped by the other day and left a baby on our doorstep. That would be the baby Benz, the fourth generation of the Mercedes C-class, a car whose lineage dates to 1983. At first it was called the 190—the C designation came along for model year 1994—but the idea was to produce a small car that would bring Benz cachet into a more affordable realm and, oh, yeah, give the BMW 3-series a little competition, an idea that's still operative.
As we observed at the time in a preview [March 1983], the new 190 sedans were "damned fine little cars," representing "the first time that Daimler-Benz AG has acknowledged the presence of BMW and Audi as competitors."
In that sense—responding to new initiatives from Teutonic rivals—little has changed in the past quarter-century, although the ante keeps increasing. But the smallest of Benzes has changed considerably, and it's not at all clear that the term "baby" is relevant anymore. Compared with the progenitor of this species, the latest C-class is 7.3 inches longer, 3.6 inches wider, and 1.9 inches taller, on a wheelbase 3.8 inches longer, not to mention a curb weight that's gone up about 1000 pounds.
Of more significance are the dimensional changes from the third-generation car to the fourth. The wheelbase grows from 106.9 inches to 108.7. Overall length stretches 3.9 inches to 182.3. Width increases to 69.7 inches, a gain of 1.7. The track expands as well, by 1.1 inches front (from 59.3) and 1.5 inches rear (from 58.1).
Engines and Performance
However, bigger almost invariably entails negative consequences at the scales, and the '08 C-class is no exception. The C350 Sport we tested in November 2005 weighed 3515 pounds ready to rock. The car under scrutiny here nudged the needle to 3671. Since the one element of the C-class inventory that hasn't really changed is the powertrain, the consequence of increased mass is increased acceleration times (read "slower").
The fourth-gen C350 is propelled by the same 90-degree V-6 as its predecessor—3.5 liters, 24 valves, naturally aspirated, DOHC with variable valve timing on both cams, 268 horsepower at 6000 rpm, 258 pound-feet of torque—mated to Benz's seven-speed automatic transmission. However, the previous C350 Sport was also available with a six-speed manual gearbox. So equipped, our November '05 test car hit 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 14.2 seconds at 99 mph.
Our '08 C350 Sport achieved 60 mph in 6.0 seconds and ran the quarter in 14.6 at 97 mph. How much of the disparity is attributable to manual versus automatic? Hard to quantify, but our calculation is no more than a couple 10ths to 60. The seven-speed auto can be shifted manually by waggling the shift lever from side to side, and its responses are reasonably prompt. So we conclude that mass is the culprit, and it's also clear that this V-6 isn't on quite the same power plateau as BMW's twin-turbo 3.0-liter straight-six. Direct injection would close some of the gap, and we expect to see this upgrade in the not-too-distant future.
One final seven-speed observation. Although it's milkshake smooth in full auto mode, with ratios well matched to the engine's broad torque band, it has the all-too-common habit of upshifting on its own when the tach approaches the red and refusing downshift commands if that puts engine speed anywhere close to redline.
Aside from the carry-over powertrain, the C350 is all-new. Its unibody has the solid feel of something designed for railway use; the suspension—strut front, multilink rear, with firmer tuning and lower ride height in Sport models—delivers a blend of firm autobahn ride and willing response that's all but indistinguishable from a 3-series BMW; and the nicely weighted rack-and-pinion steering is more communicative than the system in the previous C350 Sport.
We were a little surprised to see that the new car's front brake rotors—vented and cross-drilled—have actually shrunk in size from the previous generation's. At 12.7 inches in diameter, they're more than an inch bigger than the rotors on the C300 models but almost an inch smaller than the 13.6-inch front discs on our '05 C350 Sport tester. The rear rotors are a little bigger and thicker, and the '08 car did stop a little sooner than its predecessor—170 feet from 70 mph versus 175. That's pretty ordinary by class standards. A BMW 328i we tested earlier this year ["Winds of Change?" April 2007] needed 160 feet for the same stop. We also regard the skidpad performance—0.82 g, delivered by Continental ContiSportContact 3 tires on optional 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels—to be quite ordinary among sports sedans in this class.
Driving and Interior Impressions
So we emerge with a sense that the word sport is not an entirely accurate descriptor for this car, an impression that's amplified by the relaxed-fit bucket seats—long-haul comfortable, but lacking in lateral support during hard cornering.
Even if the sport part isn't a paramount priority, there is much to like here. Materials of the elegantly simple interior are pretty much up to the standards you'd expect in a car costing well over $40,000, although we did get a minority of test staff niggling about some of the plastic trim. The front seats offer a broad range of adjustability, the steering column adjusts (manually) for rake and reach, the low cowl and the fall-away hoodline conspire to provide outstanding forward sightlines, and we like the hideaway feature of the nav/infotainment screen, which folds itself neatly into the upper dash when switched off. We also like the latest updates to the Mercedes COMAND secondary control collective, which is much easier to use than the obscure logic that still plagues BMW's iDrive.
It's a look that says Mercedes in any language, conferring undeniable status on its owner. It may be the humblest of Benzes, but it is a Mercedes nonetheless, and all them other cars ain't. You may observe that, in terms of performance image, the C-class has always languished in the long shadow cast by the BMW 3-series, but the languishing has been considerably mitigated by some six million sales over the first 25 years.
Which brings us to the dollar platz. A C300 Sport will start at $31,975, a C300 Luxury at $33,675, and the C350 Sport at $37,275. Our test car, enhanced by two comprehensive option packages, tallied $46,545.
The pricing parallels that of the BMW 3-series sedans—no surprise there—and it's clear that entry level adds up to a lot more than it did 25 years ago, when the 190 came to the U.S. with a base price of about $23,000.
You've come a long way, baby.